I have never been much of a musician myself but have often been a great ‘appreciator.’ I bought my first record, a 45 rpm, when I was about 13. It was “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino. That was followed by “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. So you can see I was a rock ‘n’ roll kid.
In my teen years my bedroom walls were plastered with pictures of Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson – I couldn’t decide how bad I wanted to be; and as I slid from high school into college my friends and I listened to Peter, Paul and Mary and other folk singers.
When I was in college it was the Beach Boys, the early Beetles and singing groups like the Temptations. Nothing I had heard up to that time prepared me for what came next.
I had an English teacher who was a mentor to me. While not a feminist herself (that movement was a few years in the future) she was intelligent, independent, career-oriented and confident – everything I longed to be.
She was also very cultured; something I might aspire to be but could not claim. She was familiar with art, history, music, literature and had a cosmopolitan outlook. In fact, before making literature her career, she had studied opera at Julliard. The closest I had ever come to ‘serious’ music was the Latin hymns of Sunday mass and Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” at Christmas.
Then one day she loaned me a few albums to listen to. I went home to my studio apartment (which was about 100 square feet) and put the first one on the phonograph (that was when we still used turntables).
A soprano voice, as sharp as a knife and tender as a bird … within a few seconds I was weeping. The words were Italian and I didn’t know what she was saying – but the beauty, the beauty was overwhelming. The song was the “Un bel di,” an aria from the opera Madame Butterfly by Puccini and the singer was Renata Tebaldi.
That was the day I lost my musical virginity and realized the true power of music. The words completely bypassed the thinking mind taking away rational meaning and instead the voice of the heart was heard and what I heard had the sound of Truth and the face of beauty.
Music has always had this capacity to enchant – not only to uplift the soul and soothe the heart but to set armies marching. Over the succeeding years, other musicians and genres and situations have reminded me of music’s power. I cannot listen to “America, the Beautiful and not have a lump in my throat; or Ave Maria sung at Midnight Mass and not feel blessed; or “Yellow Submarine” and not feel joyful.
But even today, when I listen to Un bel di tears come to my eyes because it is so filled with beauty.
Un bel dì: In this, the opera’s most famous aria, Butterfly says that, “one beautiful day”, they will see a puff of smoke on the far horizon. Then a ship will appear and enter the harbor. She will not go down to meet him but will wait on the hill for him to come. After a long time, she will see in the far distance a man beginning the walk out of the city and up the hill. When he arrives, he will call “Butterfly” from a distance, but she will not answer, partly for fun and partly not to die from the excitement of the first meeting. Then he will speak the names he used to call her: “Little one. Dear wife. Orange blossom.”